Skip to main content
Damaged buildings at Whitechapel in 1945

The V-2 rocket: One of Hitler's deadliest weapons

Image: Ruined buildings at Whitechapel, London caused by the penultimate V-2 to strike the city on 27 March 1945, killing 134 people | Public Domain (Colourized)

In 1936, the RAF targeted military sites, airfields, warships and ammo depots, but they were also responsible for distributing propaganda by dropping leaflets onto cities and towns. In the same year, Wernher von Braun, an ingenious young rocket engineer, was put to task by the Third Reich to develop a new weapon.

Three years later, an RAF air raid on Berlin incensed Hitler so much that he ordered a mass bombing campaign on British shores over an eight-month period (from September 1940 to May 1941) that became known as the Blitz.

Despite killing almost 40,000 civilians, the Blitz failed to succeed in achieving its objective of, ultimately, paving the way for a land invasion. But it arguably resulted in the Allies adopting a new military strategy with the arrival of Air Chief, Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris in 1942, alongside a modern fleet of aircraft that consisted of the now legendary Avro Lancaster bomber.

Harris’ believed that the war against Germany could be won from the air, in his words, ‘bring masonry crashing down on top of the Boche, to kill the Boche and to terrify the Boche’. Harris’ intention wasn’t just to target oil refineries or factories, but to employ ‘area bombing’ which would also indiscriminately hit civilians in the surrounding target areas. For all intents and purposes, bring the Blitz to Germany, but on a much grander scale.

By 1945, it was evident that the effective targeting of fuel depots combined with a disregard for civilian casualties was having a positive effect on the Aliies' campaign. This was despite over 55,000 of Harris’ aircrew dying during the effort.

Meanwhile, Hitler was ready to reveal a deadly counter-offensive that wouldn’t cost him men or aircraft. Launched just over a year before World War II concluded, the V-1 was an unmanned pulse jet engine with a maximum speed of 400mph carrying 850 grams of explosives guided by a gyro servo system.

There is a cynical simplicity to the V-1 that sets it apart from its contemporaries. There was never any intention to target military infrastructure, instead, it served just two functions: fear and destruction. Indeed, the ‘V’ stands for ‘vergeltungswaffen’ meaning ‘vengeance weapon’.

The ‘doodlebug’ or ‘buzzbomb’, as it became known on account of its distinct engine sound, had terrifying potential despite being plagued by mechanical failures and a limited range. The V-1 campaign in Britain only lasted four months after it first hit Swanscombe, Kent on 13th June 1944 before the Allies destroyed all the launch sites in range of the UK. However, V-1s were used to bomb Antwerp, Belgium right up until the end of the war.

A week after the last V-1 hit London, a V-2 reached an altitude of 175 km (109 miles) and became the first-ever rocket to reach space. A few months later on 8th September 1944, the first V-2 smashed into London. While its bloody intent was the same as the V-1, the two machines were significantly different.

Both weapons used a pair of pre-set gyros for navigation, one for direction, one for stability, but the V-1 was powered by a pulsejet engine, a technology that was patented in 1906 by Russian engineer V.V. Karavodin. In basic terms, a pulsejet rocket burned its fuel in quick succession, hence the buzzing sound it made. But the V-2, a liquid propellant rocket engine, burned all of its fuel to generate the 25 metric tons of thrust required to get it into the air.

In addition to reliability, assuming it achieved its objective of reaching five times the speed of sound a minute after take-off, the V-2 could travel more than 3,500 miles per hour for over 200 miles with a 2,200-pound warhead. It was also much more portable than the V-1 and could be fired anywhere from a steel launch pad making it much harder for the Allies to hit it before it was airborne. However, all of these advantages over the V-1 came at a deadly price.

The first successful V-2 test took place on 3rd October 1942, but the Allies got wind of its development and successfully destroyed the factory required to build it. The following year, the subterranean Mittelwerk factory began manufacturing V-2s in earnest, aided by forced labour cynically acquired from the local Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Between 10,000 to 12,000 prisoners, roughly four times the total number of citizens that were killed by V-2s in London, were worked to death in appalling conditions.

After the war, Wernher von Braun, alongside the entire rocket development team, surrendered to the US. All were spared prosecution. Instead, six months after the last V-2 came down in the UK on 27th March 1945, von Braun and his team of engineers were in New Mexico working on a guided missile system for the US Army Ordinance Corps. In 1960, von Braun became both the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre and the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket. The very same technology that had been used in the V-2 rockets was now being used to put men on the Moon.

Von Braun, a former member of the notorious SS, became known as the ‘father of space travel’ and went on to become a celebrity in his adopted US, fronting television shows for Walt Disney and counting John F Kennedy as a personal friend. He died of pancreatic cancer in Alexandria, Virginia at age 65 on 16th June 1977.

President Carter made the following statement on hearing the news of his death: ‘To millions of Americans, Wernher von Braun's name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work. We will continue to profit from his example.’